Sustainable sushi: local gastronomy with a positive impact for your trip
Updated: Jul 11
– How to enjoy a tasty meal without harming the health of the oceans
On the occasion of World Oceans Day (8 June) and International Sushi Day (18 June), we are taking advantage of this month's celebrations to talk about sushi, a dish directly associated with Japanese culture, and also about the importance of sustainable fishing and local and seasonal food production.
It is the perfect occasion to address issues of major importance in sustainable travel, such as gastronomy, since a large part of our activity during the journey revolves around food. It is also important to address the challenge of oceans' health, as it is well known that our oceans are facing major threats.
A little history of sushi
Sushi is a dish closely related to Japanese culture and very popular worldwide. Although today people may pay fortunes for gourmet sushi experiences, Alexander Lee in History Today points out that sushi was at first neither sophisticated nor even Japanese.
Indeed, the origin of sushi goes back some 2000 years, emerging as a way to preserve fish and to avoid wasting food by putting it in fermented rice. This initial form of sushi appeared on the banks of the Mekong River in Southeast Asia as a 'poor' food. It later reached areas of modern China and finally Japan (it seems that the first Japanese references appear in the Yoro Code compiled in 718). The combination of fish and rice evolved over time, gradually reducing fermentation and allowing for less time-consuming preparation.
The sushi most similar to today's is the one that appeared in the 19th century known as Edo-mae and attributed to the chef Hanaya Yohei, which differed from the modern form mainly in size and in the way the fish was prepared. Today's fast sushi was made possible by the advent of the refrigerator, which allows fish to be served fresh and fast. Alexander Lee says that refrigerators were considered 'luxury' items, so sushi became at that time a 'festive' food, a refined treat to be enjoyed on special occasions.
Today, there are many different types of sushi and methods of preparation and it is undeniably a tasty meal ideal for sharing with friends or family.
However, since it is a fish dish, when consuming it we must take into consideration questions such as where it comes from, how it has been caught or farmed, the vulnerability of the species served or whether they are being overfished. In addition to this environmental impact, we also should remember that unsustainable practices have an impact on the local community too, as fishermen may see their source of income and employment opportunities reduced.
An overview of fisheries in Japan today
Let's take a look at Japan's fishing tradition to understand the context that leads us to talk about sustainable sushi today.
Fisheries are a primary industry in Japan's coastal areas and are essential not only for food security in the country but also in terms of traditional knowledge and culture. Despite its bad reputation mainly related to whaling, Japan has made some notable contributions in recent years.
Japan is one of fourteen countries members of the High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy and the government has developed a system that aims to ensure sustainable fisheries (see Catch Shares In Action - Japanese Common Fishing Rights). Some of the goals of this Program are protecting small-scale coastal fishermen and incorporating community knowledge in management decisions. The Fishery Solutions Centre from California notes that the common fishery rights and the co-management arrangement in Japan has stimulated fishermen innovation so far.
However, as the independent Minderoo foundation points out, “overall, Japan shows limited progress to restore fish stocks […] To advance towards SDG target 14.4, Japan needs to take urgent action to rebuild overfished stocks and strengthen science-based management”. Also, the overall Ocean Health Index score for Japan is 68 out of 100, which is a bit lower than the global average score of 69.
The FAO of the United Nations (Food and Agriculture Organization) highlights that in Japan at present “the multi-faced functions, other than just food security, of fisheries and fishing communities, such as conservation of natural environment, national security and promotion and succession of the traditional culture, are also highly recognized and appreciated”.
It is clear that harvesting seafood sustainably, ensuring access to artisanal fishing, preserving coastal habitats and marine ecosystems, and participating in sustainable tourism in coastal regions, are crucial for the sustainable development of the country and the health of the oceans.
In this context, it is important to promote sushi produced in a more environmentally responsible way and to favour consumption in restaurants that ensure a supply chain of sustainable seafood products. Restaurants that respect the closed seasons for seafood products, know the traceability and origin of the fish they use and can ensure that it comes from sustainable fishing.
One way to do this is to check if these restaurants have a sustainability certification, obtained through external and impartial auditors, such as the Marine Stewardship Council blue MSC & ASC eco-label for sustainable fishing.
Another way to eat sushi in a more responsible manner is by following the “Four S Rule”. It is a guide established by Casson Trenor, a frequent commentator on sustainable seafood issues who has been featured in regional, national, and international media outlets, including CNN, NPR, Forbes, New York Times or Boston Globe.
According to this rule, the 4S are: Small, Seasonal, Silver and Shellfish.
As consumers, we should prioritise small fish because they are lower on the food chain, grow quicker and die younger. Likewise, we should favour seasonal fish to reduce our carbon dependency and environmental missteps derived from our out-of-season products demand. On the other hand, it is a good idea to order sushi served with itssilver skin (hikari mono in Japanese), because it contains animals (mackerels, halfbeaks etc.) that can be sourced from well-managed fisheries. Last but not least, shellfish (bivalves and molluscs) not only is good for us but it also entails environmental benefits (low impact farming compared with others as salmon farms, low dependency to marine sources, type of raising that doesn’t require dredging or other types of seabed alteration during harvest etc.).
Ine: a fishing port town
To tell you about places in Japan that are committed to this type of fishing and where you can find local products, we ourselves have travelled to Ine.
Ine is a beautiful fishing village in Japan located in Yosa District (Kyoto Prefecture). Considered one of the most beautiful villages in Japan and unique for its waterfront boat houses (funaya), we bring it up today because of its fishing tradition.
In the past, almost every house in Ine had its own boat because most of them were fishermen, and also because it was their main means of transport. These boats were accessed directly from their houses, which were divided into two parts: 舟屋 (funaya or boat house) and 母屋 (omoya or main house).
The funayas are the ones found on the coastline that had the garage for the boats and the omaya were the buildings where the people lived. In those days, the two were connected. However, over the years the village adapted to the modern way of life and the two were separated by a road that facilitates the transit of cars.
Today, the fishing industry in Ine faces difficulties linked to the ageing population. Many of the houses no longer have boats because there are no longer many fishermen. To solve this, the village of Ine is encouraging young people to come to live in the village as farmers or fishermen, by offering them financial support or fisherie courses.
As for the local products, there is no fixed fish market in the village, but they buy fish directly from the morning market. When they receive notification of the arrival of the fishing boat, which is only available to local people, they go directly to the market.
So it is important to contribute to gastronomic sustainability and the health of the oceans while enjoying tasty food. In Japan, there are ways to do this: enjoy local cuisine and traditional sushi while making a commitment to sustainability.
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